One of the most useful binary oppositions in literary theory is that between mimesis and diegesis, or between showing and telling. To over-simplify: a play like Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida shows the action; an epic poem like the Odyssey narrates the action in involuted folds of narrative, forwards and backwards like Penelope's shuttle. (And yes, Auerbach's Mimesis is indeed one of my favourite books.) And yes, I know this distinction is ripe for unpicking. But it's where I begin, today.
I've been thinking about the film, In Search of Beethoven, which I saw yesterday. It's a wonderful documentary, though it holds its fire all the time, and is quite restrained. It's more concerned with emotion than psychology, for example, and its attempts to fill out cultural and historical context are sketchy at best. For all that, though, it's surprisingly satisfying. It's full of irresistible close-ups of pianos, fingers, and the wood grain on the side of the piano keys and cellos, the extraordinary and unlikely tactility of bow hairs across strings.
The film has a clear message too: re-orient your vision of Beethoven as tempestuous angry man, frustrated by deafness; and re-think a man of a great mind and a great heart in struggle with each other. A man of generosity, spirituality and humane love.
Some of the most compelling scenes are where musicians demonstrate and talk about particular passages. Mimesis and diegesis working together. Someone explains that Beethoven was particularly good, as a pianist, at repeating a note, or progressing smoothly down a scale of octaves, and wrote such features into his work to annoy less able pianists. At one point, someone plays a repeated B, and shows how Beethoven is just "listening to the note" at that point.
But the most amazing moment for me was when Hélène Grimaud is rehearsing the second movement of the 4th piano concerto, and plays, very slowly, its slow descending scales (I listened to my CD of Lang Lang playing this this afternoon). Her face is overcome with anxiety, tension and love of every note of this music: in perfectly balanced irregular rhythm, note by note runs off wood and drops into a deep pool. It's utterly engrossing. Far less spectacular than the big symphonies, with their insistent obsessive rhythms, but completely compelling. It was about halfway through what is a rather long and academic film, but the cinema audience was suddenly transfixed and silent. I'm sure I was not the only one to feel the tears running down.
But of course, I can only try and tell you, diegetically, what this moment of mimesis was like. The other way to tell you is to say that I just put my ipod on shuffle. The first thing that came up was a Bach cantata, and I think for the first time in my life I heard Bach as a mechanical martinet of a composer. What if I am becoming a romantic, after all these years?